“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:2
Paul spent the first 7 chapters of Romans explaining to that little group of around 300 Roman Christians that the human story is not merely sad or tragic, but above all it is a narrative that leads inevitably to a dead end, a blind alley with no way out because it is a result of humanity’s atheism, of humanity opting out of God’s story. Every one of us entered life bearing the wounds of the Fall and each person breathed his first deep breaths in a socially constructed environment that Paul refers to as “the world” and sometimes as “the flesh” and that setting in which we find ourselves is entirely devoted to the religion of atheism. There are a variety of socially constructed realities of atheism that encourage us to love, to cherish and to commitment “ourselves, our souls and our bodies” to the boundless illusion that the truth about being, the truth about all that is, and alas, the truth about ourselves is that finally we will all pass out of existence. Paul with the skill of a master rhetorician narrates how all these socially constructed variations on the theme of atheism naturally beget ways of life that beget more patterns of recurrence, more complexity, but in the end it is the complexity of sophists, cleverly devised tales that infect our sin-sick hearts, reducing the potentially rich human imagination to absurdity; and binding our faculty of understanding by all kinds of biases that we are not even aware of. It would be like men and women bound to chairs in a darkened room and forced to watch soap operas and political speeches till over time they come to believe the world is entirely made up soap operas and political speeches and of course people like themselves who lived for soap operas and political speeches. Eventually the cords that bound them to the chairs were no longer necessary and the doors could be safely left unlocked because all they wanted to do was to say in their darkened rooms and watch more and more soap operas and listen to political speeches. This is the state of being that Paul describes:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather then the Creator…”
St. Paul shows in chapters 1-3 of Romans, that this grandiose illusion does not correspond to reality and it leads to decline, bondage, decay, domination, utilitarianism, instrumentalism and ultimately it leads to social and personal disintegration. What are the socially constructed beliefs or attitudes that lead to more illusion? A few examples would be: living your life for the sake of being thought highly of by other people, getting your meaning in life from other people rather than God; or making material things the treasure of your heart – living for fashion, living for the wealth, or getting your sense of security and meaning from these illusions. Living for power – getting it, having it or living in fear of powerful people or power forces like bad luck, or good luck, or fate, or some form of magic. In one way or another St. Paul warns Christians to reject these deceptions and before Paul we can read our Lord’s warnings in the Sermon on the Mount.
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:2
These are manifestation of the “law of sin and death.” Such ways of life may be very complex and so diverse as to appear dissimilar to one another, but what they all have in common is atheism. Atheism distorts the sinfulness of sin, muddles reality and transforms sin into a brave new choice. It is as though atheism provides one with a mirror that eliminates all one’s flaws – a pure fiction of course.
Paul will not have it. The very best we can achieve, he wrote, is to “see through a glass, darkly,” and what he saw in the streets of Jerusalem, of Corinth and Rome were various manifestations of the law of sin and death which is human life based on lies rather than God’s truth. Paul has to make lists after lists of sins in his epistles, the upshot of which is to show that sin is not merely personal, but also social and the blast radius for my sin, the kill zone, is not limited to my personal space. It is a hard Christian lesson, sometimes never learned, a remorseful day when one realizes that the destructiveness of one’s own sin that one thought to be all about one’s self has come to rest upon other people. Such is the meaning and the unavoidable end of “walking after the flesh,” of living as though there is no God; of living as though everything and everyone who is or ever has been will finally fade into oblivion. If that is the case then personal survival is all that matters; there would be no higher good. But, that is not true, that does not correspond to reality and therefore to make survival the measure of the good or the goal of life itself is a very big mistake and one that sustains the illusions Paul refers to as the “law of sin and death” that we all live with now. The Church has never been motivated by personal survival. The small group of 300 Christians in Rome who received Paul’s letter did not see the survival of the Church as their goal in life. They did not set around trying to come up with church growth programs to insure their existence for the next generation. The young men I referred to last week who sold themselves into servitude and gave the money to the Church to feed the poor did not take such radical action in order to survive or grow the Church. I seriously doubt they were thinking that their extreme example would draw the young people of Rome to Christ. They were busy loving and obeying Christ and others. For them salvation meant more than being saved from something, it meant being saved for something wonderful.
I told you a few weeks back that the church in which I was raised largely understood salvation as salvation from eternal torment, as an escape from this world into a disembodied heavenly realm of safety. In fact I would say that understanding of salvation, Jesus as the ultimate fire escape, was regarded as common sense for the Christian culture in which I grew up regardless of the denomination. Now when one thinks of fire escapes one tends to call to mind some stair step or ladder and it is true that Jesus one time alludes to himself as a ladder, but the ladder he spoke of was not a ladder from which one might escape a burning building, but rather he was speaking of the vision of Jacob’s Ladder that he promised to Nathanael:
“And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” John 1:51
Here is an example of our Lord using the well-known Old Testament story of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, the story in which God opens up Heaven and his angels ascend and descend upon Jacob’s Ladder. Jacob does not take the ladder up to Heaven, but rather God comes to Jacob with the same promise he made to his grandfather Abraham.
“And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed…”
It is not a disembodied state in Heaven that he is promised, but the land and that place of his vision, and that very place where Heaven came down to him, Jacob named Bethel, which means House of God. What is my point and what does this have to do with Romans? Very soon, in the middle of chapter 8 of Romans, St. Paul will enlarge God’s promise to Abraham and Jacob to include all of creation and everything in it as the objects of God’s blessing and liberating presence. The end of creation is not to be the sport of angels, and certainly not to finally fade into nothingness, but the end, the telos of creation is the loving, liberating presence of the God who is God who intends to wed his divine life with the material world; a state of beings which has already been accomplished not by our climbing the ladder up to Heaven, but by the Incarnation as the Logos made the Blessed Virgin Mary, the new Bethel, and Mary’s body was made in a literal sense the House of God. Creation is not made for the trash heap, but to share in God’ life forever.
We are children of Light and not children of darkness. We are not bound to sin, nor are we conditioned to the illusions of atheism and utilitarianism. And we are made Christians, we have received the Holy Spirit, we have been infused with heavenly virtues and we like Mary, know that our bodies have become the House of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit because Christ dwells in us. St. Paul pushes this point:
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” Romans 8:9
But Paul goes on. Albeit we dwell in bodies that bear the wound of corruptibility, which means that we will certainly die if Christ does not return first – though that is the case, Paul writes that we live in the truth of Christ, we are not at the beck and call of the illusions that transfix the world and lay it waste. Furthermore we belong to Jesus and not to this world nor to sin. We owe sin nothing but we owe Christ everything. And we can be sure that Christ will raise these frail, corruptible bodies of ours to eternal life and glory to live with him forever.
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
According to the Paul our resurrection is about more than our own destiny because ultimately the destiny of the whole creation is tied to our destiny as children of God. The idea that Paul is opening up in Romans reaches its high point, a sort of finality here in chapter 8 and his point is all of God’s creation was from the very start bound to man, bound to Adam – not at all free and self-governing but wholly dependent upon man. Creation’s destiny is one with our destiny with a qualification: since the fall creation and its ultimate destiny has been bound up, not with the ungodly who walk after the flesh, who live the lie, but rather creation’s destiny is bound up with the children of God, who walk according to the Spirit of God, who will raised our moral bodies to life everlasting in glorious Kingdom of God.
But this anticipation is all the more poignant because creation is suffering an existential bondage to death, a state of “futility” and corruption, entirely because of its existential bond to man and his destiny. Futility is a way of saying that creation is use as an end for which it was not designed. Calves were not created to be worshiped. Airplanes are designed to carry passengers from one part of the world to another, not to be flown into buildings. Man’s futility and creation’s futility began with Adam’s distortion of his God-given work to husband creation. “Man the Gardener” became “man the manipulator.” Adam’s sin was not merely personal, but systemic, subjecting all of creation to the futility his sin called down upon himself.
We live in this “Already/Not Yet” tension of hope and loss, of faith and death, of love and broken hearts. We share this existential bond with the first generation Church, with that little group of 300 Christians in Rome, and for that matter with all of humanity, Christian or not. The dearest people in our lives leave us eventually or we leave them. Death breaks the circle. And yet we continue to know the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” that green hope that Paul likens to the firstfruits of a harvest, the first wine of the season, the first bit of scattered grain upon the threshing floor. The Holy Spirit succors us and we know that the harvest has begun and the final fruit, the resurrection, is sure to come. But the Spirit does not free us from the tension of living in this veil of tears. In fact the Holy Spirit actually heightens the tension and brings it to an anguished expression as we sigh within waiting not for deliverance from the material world but our transformation, knowing that our transformation will bring about all of creation’s transformation.